Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, but even he can’t outrun copyright law. Since the dawn of the pulp hero in the 1930s, publishers and authors have fought over the privilege of making money off of comics, and the authors and artists usually have lost. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, got all of $130 for the rights to the hero.
In Empire of the Superheroes, Mark Cotta Vaz argues that licensing and litigation do as much as any ink-stained creator to shape the mythology of comic characters. Vaz reveals just how precarious life was for the legends of the industry. Siegel and Shuster–and their heirs–spent seventy years battling lawyers to regain rights to Superman. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were cheated out of their interest in Captain America, and Kirby’s children brought a case against Marvel to the doorstep of the Supreme Court. To make matters worse, the infant comics medium was nearly strangled in its crib by censorship and moral condemnation. For the writers and illustrators now celebrated as visionaries, the golden age of comics felt more like hard times.
The fantastical characters that now earn Hollywood billions have all-too-human roots. Empire of the Superheroes digs them up, detailing the creative martyrdom at the heart of a pop-culture powerhouse.